The day was dark. Intermittent rain saturated the air to an uncomfortable thickness, and clouds shrouded the promise of a sunny hike in the mountains as we had planned. We decided to scrap those plans and make others.
We took a day trip to Charlottesville, Virginia to visit Monticello (from the Italian, meaning “little mountain”), home of Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States. We wanted a taste of history. Speaking for myself, I got a lot more than a taste – and some of the taste was bitter.
Mr. Jefferson is known by many as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, a cherished document that launched our nation into existence. The document claims our freedom, but it did not claim it for everyone. You see, in addition to Mr. Jefferson being a mathematician, botanist, lawyer and engineer, he was also a slave owner.
Mr. Jefferson was a human being who owned other human beings. Monticello was a working plantation, and I was about to visit a place where both remarkable triumphs and horrific acts had taken place.
Our guide did not try to hide the facts about what had taken place on the grounds, yet I could sense a glossing over of the uncomfortable details. We were sped through a room that held the spirits of great sadness. It was a room where rich people struck deals and purchased slaves that were for sale. It overlooked a spot where families were torn apart. This was a place of unimaginable sorrow that hung in the air even thicker than the mist on that day.
Our tour of the house was completed, and we were told we could roam around a while. I knew what I had to do: I had to visit the slave quarters and cemetery. It would not be right to avoid this. It would be an injustice.
I walked across the grounds, past a now-paved parking area for the convenience of the cars of the tourists, through a wooded path to a simple spot in the woods, corralled by a simple fence and nothing more. There were no markers or monuments, just a sign out front declaring the final resting place for those who never reaped the fruits of Mr. Jefferson’s document.
Some of the names were incomplete, some of the dates missing, but all of the spirits were present. I wondered what it was like for them, spending an entire life in a shack, toiling at their back-breaking jobs without the possibility of hope or dreams, having loved ones ripped from their arms, never to be seen again. And as feeble as it may sound, it is impossible not to cry there.
But what more can we do than to pay our respects to those who experienced it and to make sure it never happens again? History does not always taste sweet, but it must be swallowed whole to insure that we understand what happened. It is the only way to work towards a better future.
I offer these pictures of the slave cemetery at Monticello.